50 Years Later, This Land is Still Woody Guthrie’s Land

Once upon a time, a gathering of family and friends didn’t mean 12 people looking down at their phones.

Once upon a time, those people used to do things like talk or maybe even sing.

Sorry, just having a cranky “good old days” moment here.

But the notion of people singing together is a pleasant one, and there was a time that pastime was both popular and possible, in some measure because we had a much larger common vocabulary of songs almost everyone knew.

Those songs were passed down from generation to generation, taught in music classes at school and just generally out there in our ambient life.

Now, not so much, and that’s a shame, doggonit, a twinge reinforced by a new DVD release titled Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970.

As the name suggests, this 80-minute DVD from MVD revisits a 1970 Los Angeles concert that benefited the California chapter of the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease.

Woody Guthrie had died three years earlier of Huntington’s, another one of those miserable diseases that slowly shuts your body down.

In the spirit of most fund-raising concerts, this one did not have a funereal air. It brought a sheaf of folksingers to celebrate Guthrie’s music by singing it.

The artists included Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Odetta, Country Joe McDonald and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, with a drop-in from Earl Robinson and narration by Will Geer and Peter Fonda.

The quick highlight is Guthrie’s most famous song, one that most people today probably still do know: “This Land Is Your Land,” a simple yet sweeping ode to the promise of America.

“As I went walking / That ribbon of highway / I saw above me / That endless skyway / I saw below me / Those golden valleys / This land was made for you and me.”

Guthrie wrote the song, lifting the tune from the Carter Family’s “Little Darling Pal of Mine,” as a wary response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

God may have blessed America, Guthrie felt, but God hadn’t persuaded America to fulfill its promise by distributing its bounty equitably. The last three verses of the song, the ones usually unheard, make Guthrie’s intention clear. (“As I went walking I saw a sign there / And on the sign it said ‘Private Property’ / But on the other side it didn’t say nothing . . . .”)

The full tale of “This Land” is its own discussion, in any case. For the purposes of this concert, the singers crowd around several microphones and sing it together.

They mix and match on the other songs. Baez and Seeger sing “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh.” Arlo sings “Do Re Mi” and “Oklahoma Hills.” Seeger and Robinson sing “Roll On Columbia.” Baez sings “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee).” Elliott sings “1913 Massacre,” McDonald sings “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Havens sings “Nine Hundred Miles” and Odetta sings “Ramblin’ Round.”

Those songs were all familiar to folksingers and the folk world in 1970. They were also familiar to a wider circle of music fans, because folk music, in the broadest sense, was more embedded in our common culture.

One reason: Many folk songs were designed to be sung by the folk. “This Land Is Your Land” has a simple, catchy melody that can be sung by anyone, including people who can’t sing, and the same was true for hundreds of other songs written by the prolific Guthrie.

No, you and I aren’t going to sound like Joan Baez. We won’t have the wry style of Arlo Guthrie or the distinctive urgency of Seeger, who made a career out of getting audiences to sing along.

But if you came to this show knowing nothing of Woody Guthrie, you could still enjoy it. He wrote for many reasons, some serious and some fun, and the running motif was that he always tried to make his songs engaging.

As his old running buddy Geer notes during the show, Guthrie figured the singer was only half the song equation. The other half was the listener, who had to feel a connection, and that was one reason Guthrie declared that he hated songs “that make people feel bad about themselves, that make them feel they’re no good.”

He wanted listeners to come away with a sense that whatever happened today, tomorrow could be better. So even when the message was as depressing as “Deportee,” about our indifference to migrant workers killed in a plane crash, he was urging us to see migrants as fellow human beings. It’s a message you’d almost think could resonate today, 71 years after he wrote it.

In the activist spirit of Guthrie’s work, the artists here pointedly feature the quietly searing “I’ve Got To Know,” with lyrics like “Why do your death bombs fall from my skies?” and “Why don’t your ships bring food and some clothing?”

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, this gives the concert a strong contemporary flavor. Yet at the same time it feels curiously undated. That’s a tribute to the performers and the songs, and tells us we could sing them just as joyfully today.

Assuming we remember how to put our phones down.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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